Inger Lise Rasmussen
Like so many budding academy students, the young Inger Lise Rasmussen had to learn the basic craft of drawing. The standard procedure was to stare down the human features of an ancient work of art – ‘The Blonde Ephebe’ from c. 400 BC – until the gaze could convert what one had seen into mimetic form with highlights and shadows and results as deceptively close as one could get to the bust that was the model. For four hours a day through six weeks she sat face to face with that head until it began to smile – and her training was complete. The real lesson, she has said, was the slowly dawning awareness of the common fate of humanity: that it dies and is forgotten.
Since then the human figure has not impinged on the world of her subjects. A quick glance establishes that in the scenarios of this book humanity is conspicuous by its absence. Homo sapiens is never a living foreground figure. If people appear in the picture it is as supernumaries in a play staged by others, stiff-limbed marionettes in labyrinthine or oversized stage sets, not to mention actual stone pillars set up to scare off any of the still-living who might think of taking possession of the urban space as their domain and domicile.
The paradox is that it is the fate of these still-living that is Inger Lise Rasmussen’s real concern. The camera is the probe into emptiness with which she retrieves narratives from the urban landscapes, squares, roadways, edifices, sculptures or monuments. From this point of view all the hewn and dressed and stacked construction material becomes just that – monuments. The negatives capture ugly, grotesque, magnificent, touching or decadent testimony to an existence that someone has chosen, that others have had imposed on them, and that others again have been slaves in or of. It is the struggle of these hidden people with their surroundings that she has hunted down, and sometimes she hardly knows she has captured until she has it spread it out in an enlargement and later built it together with other elements as wordless tales in photogravure, first tinted in accordance with an intuitive colour scale, then later given wise titles in languages from their country of origin. Sometimes too they have words, lots of words, inlaid in the pictorial pattern.
That is as it should be. Curiosity and emotion are the driving forces. Reflection and caustic irony belong to post-production. The destination is preferably chosen for political reasons, and offers ugliness rather than beauty, for this is where the yeast that ferments her own narratives is to be found. Take for example the journey to the island of Rügen: four and a half kilometres of brick in six storeys placed on the beach of the German holiday island for the pervertedly idealistic Nazis of the thirties. Out of this rises the series Prora 1:1000 (1) – a mini-model of the hubristic project, the series itself is compacted together of many small pictures like cemented bricks in a dense sequence of four and a half metres, printed brown on brown on hard office carton. It is different with Hå by the Sea,(2) which begins the book and is prior to Prora. Here the seasons change along with the shades of colour, and the thick copperprint paper permits the eye to luxuriate in and follow the waves of pebbles surging up to the domed clouds. But what we see is not just nature; it is the imprint of an invisible race from a remote Common Germanic Age of Migrations, with a death cult that seems able to muster a hierarchy just as overarching as the later German nation with which it shares the waves. While in the Hå series the seawater is oblivion’s great leveller and reconciler, in Prora it is the challenger, suggesting the Nordic hubris and humility familiar from the legend of King Canute at the water’s edge.(3)
The middle section of the book consists of the three large series originating in Paris, a city the travelling graphicist has visited again and again and to which she has constantly found new approaches. In the series Villes nouvelles Inger Lise Rasmussen has created a hyperreal urban landscape that involuntarily presents Giorgio de Chirico’s dreamlike scenery to the mind’s eye as a reference and framework of understanding.(4) But in contrast to the Italian’s all-consuming darkness, Rasmussen usually lets the light flicker, dance and reflect, most disturbingly where, as in “Cadres”, she coaxes knick-knack-like gentlemen out from under the designer light-globes in searing white light. Nature is invisible or repressed beyond recognition. Sophisticated and pampered as models on the catwalk, a regimented version of the plant kingdom appears in the avenue of ‘trained’ plane-trees in front of the skyscrapers (“Repoussoir”). Her interest in monumental structures continues in the series Abraxas,(5) but in this case it is the darkness and mass of the buildings that seem to have interested the artist as well as the fact that the prestigious housing estate, despite its auspicious name, has placed the hundreds of families it houses in prison-like detention. Inger Lise Rasmussen turns the magical power of the upward-striving tympana of the project upside down and fantasizes in a graphic countdown sequence over the linguistically related ‘abracadabra’ and the all-too-obvious expiry of the magic spell. On the same page, the playground remains, a yawning emptiness. Unused, it is as absurd as the Folies(6) on which Rasmussen has based the third Parisian series: the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s gigantic assemblages in the Parc de la Villette, which at intervals of 120 metres brighten up the scene with their pillar-box red turmoil of open spaces, ramps, stairs, wheels and banisters. Like a playful counter-gambit to the French philosopher Derrida,(7) who has provided the Swiss architect with the model for non-buildings, with her photo transparencies in liquid emulsion on red perspex, Inger Lise Rasmussen has in reality cancelled out the buildings’ own strong red colour and stolen a march on the philosopher by so to speak ‘deconstructing deconstruction’.
Inger Lise Rasmussen made her debut as a graphic artist in what was then Yugoslavia in 1976. It was there too, in Belgrade, that she had undergone her academy training at the beginning of the seventies. In 2004 she received an invitation to revisit the institution, and her acknowledgement came in the form of her delicate interpretation of the place in the series Akademija, where time seems to have stood still and the old lithographic limestone plates are stacked high on the shelves like forgotten books or crumbling memorial plaques. Outside lay the capital, this too stricken and paralysed, as can be glimpsed from the empathetic series After the Campaign, the title of which refers to NATO’s precision bombing of various vital buildings in the city as recently as 1999. The proud military headquarters collapsed and displaced along parallel lines – that is how Inger Lise Rasmussen literalizes the necessary shift in power in the photogravures. But the series adds a bold metaphor, the “Disjecta membra”(8) of the mannequin dummies, and thus implies that the healing is not complete despite the conciliatory name of the new state formation, Serbia-Montenegro.
The last chapter of the book consists, very logically, of the Kafka-inspired series Vor dem Gesetz.(9) It takes its title from the ultra-short but merciless story of the man who waits throughout his life for an audience with the Law, but never manages to get through the shining door which (as shockingly revealed in the last line) was in fact meant for him alone. As early as 1975 Inger Lise Rasmussen was in Czechoslovakia and, gripped by the great writer’s disturbing representations of his dreamlike inner life, visited and photographed his grave in the Jewish cemetery at Straschnitz in his birthplace Prague. It is these old negatives that the graphic artist has now taken up again. The evocative view down among the graves, some snow-clad, some covered in foliage, is subjected to an anti-nostalgic treatment by the pitiless kicks from the text, monotonous mantras that confront us with implacable fate, chaos and the final short-circuiting leading to death, atomization and inevitable oblivion. Among the black tombstones Franz Kafka’s white obelisk stands forth and – thanks to the efforts of other people – asserts its position in the face of individual oblivion. But the memorial columns of the tombs are given a collective political perspective on the literary and psychological by way of the artist’s final schematic image, which also has Berlin and Peter Eisenman’s(10) Jewish memorial in its exploratory diagram.
Inger Lise Rasmussen is not to be pinned down. When the art historian Margrethe Floryan profiled her in the art encyclopaedia Weilbachs Kunstnerleksikon ten years ago she wrote: “Her quest for new methods and idioms is reflected in an oeuvre that is fundamentally different from the mainstream of recent Danish graphics.” So it is still. And today, when the trusty underlay for her graphic creation is well-lit negatives from black-and-white silver bromide film, one can add that there are no parallels either in the main currents of contemporary Danish photography. She is one of the most important Danish exponents of the renewal of artistic life in the Nordic countries that was sparked off by the rediscovery of photogravure as an innovative, boundary-transcending narrative device. RAW SPACE is the latest offering from this creation, a sober title with great echoing potential.
Inger Lise Rasmussen was born 1941. She has mainly been active as a graphic artist and in this capacity had a substantial oeuvre behind her before she became interested in photography. She had her basic training as an artist at the Academy of Art in Belgrade in the efficiently functioning Yugoslavia of the 1970s. She has always gone abroad in order to come home, and since 1994 the camera has been her constant companion on these journeys. Graphic works are still the ultimate aim, but the black-and-white negatives from Ilford's snapshot films FP4 or HP5 are the standard technical foundation for the spiritual selection process that results in her many-faceted polymer photogravure-series on copperplate paper.
The continued enterprise of Inger Lise Rasmussen has placed her in a key position in Scandinavian photogravure, both as a teacher in Bergen in Norway, as one of the initiators behind the big inter-Scandinavian exhibition "Highlights in Nordic Photogravure"(1997), and as a workshop-guru and daily leader of the local "Højbjerg PhotoGraphic Workshop" in Aarhus.
By means of the exhibitions, "Tageskarten" (2000) and "Raw Space" (2005) both of which have been published as books, Inger lise Rasmussen has confirmed her position as a homo politicus with a camera - a watcher constantly on the lookout for signs that can be captured with the lens and worked into evidence for our lazy collective memory, which is often more willing to repress or idyllyze than to confront and know. While this is written, solo-shows in China (2008) and in the Aarhus Kunstbygning. Center for Contemporary Art (2010) are being prepared.
(Finn Thrane, PhotoMondo)
(Translation: James Manley and Finn Thrane)